Like Dust in Sunlight

The poem rises 
like dust in sunlight 
as I hold my breath
             and write
~Rick Maxson, “Ars Poetica” from  Molly and the Thieves

Words have breathed life into the dust from which we all were created.

I am still a mess of dust and words. Words suspended in light before my eyes are a reminder that God Himself breathed life and spirit into merest dust.

When I try to wrestle words down from the air to the page, I try to help them make sense, hoping then I might make sense.

I find myself holding my own breath as I write, as if that will keep my words orderly and safe, yet they have a tendency to come out jumbled and random, with no rhyme nor reason.

In my world, there is no such thing as mere dust or meaningless words. They wait for God’s holy breath to bring them to light and life.

Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
Genesis 2:7

Now available: a gift from Barnstorming if you donate $50 to support daily Barnstorming posts – you will receive three blank notecards of original art from our farm.

art by Anja Lovegren
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An Arch of Colored Light

Be thou the rainbow in the storms of life.
The evening beam that smiles the clouds away,

and tints tomorrow with prophetic ray.
~Lord Byron

But mark! what arch of varied hue
  From heaven to earth is bowed?
Haste, ere it vanish, haste to view
  The Rainbow in the cloud.

How bright its glory! there behold
  The emerald’s verdant rays,
The topaz blends its hue of gold
  With the deep ruby’s blaze.

Yet not alone to charm thy sight
  Was given the vision fair;–
Gaze on that arch of colored light,
  And read God’s mercy there.

~Felicia Hemans from “The Rainbow”

The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.
~Henry David Thoreau

Painting the indescribable with words necessitates subtlety, sound and rhythm on a page.  The best word color portraits I know are by Gerard Manley Hopkins who created  through startling combinations:  “crimson-cresseted”, “couple-colour”, “rose-moles”, “fresh-firecoal”, “adazzle, dim”, “dapple-dawn-drawn”, “blue-bleak embers”, “gash gold-vermillion”.

I understand, as Thoreau does,  how difficult it is to harvest a day using ordinary words.   Like grasping ephemeral star trails or the transient rainbow that moves away as I approach, what I bring to the page or screen is intangible yet so very real.

I will keep reaching for rainbows, searching for the best words to preserve my days and nights forever. It does feel like I’m clutching at a moment in time moving through my fingers.

I witnessed this Sabbath rainbow last night from our farm, standing with two of our very young grandchildren, hoping they would remember it enough to describe it to our someday great-grandchildren. Perhaps they will even read my words and know how much it mattered to me that they experience such beauty and promise.

I want them to always remember: in the beginning was the Word, and we are created by the same Author who writes incredible rainbows across the sky.

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Whispering Words of Wisdom: Let It Be

Aspire to decency. Practice civility toward one another. Admire and emulate ethical behavior wherever you find it. Apply a rigid standard of morality to your lives; and if, periodically, you fail ­as you surely will, adjust your lives, not the standards.
Ted Koppel

Ten years ago during this week in August, my clinical work was routine and ordinary but took a quick turn when I got a message from the media director at my university that a 14 month old medical opinion article I’d written for the student newspaper and then posted as a regular contributor on www.kevinmd.com was suddenly being quoted on the Huffington Post, Salon.com and other websites.  

Within hours, over a dozen media websites were citing “A War on Pubic Hair”

The original article was written as one in a series of opinion pieces on medical issues pertinent to college students requested by the student newspaper. I wrote it in spring 2011 after draining my umpteenth staph bacteria genital abscess due to the increasingly common practice of cosmetic removal of pubic hair. I felt the students needed to understand the hazards of what they were doing and hoped I could spare the next patient from experiencing an infection so painful and potentially serious.

So it went viral, over a year after it was written, all in a matter of hours. I was being quoted as if I had just been interviewed by these news agencies, which I had not, and they began feeding wrong information to each other: I was identified as “a leading British physician” since the first media report originated in the U.K.  One British site actually asked permission to reprint the original article, which I appreciated so that my words could not be taken out of context, but they attached a photo of me to the article lifted from my family picture on my personal blog.

Soon my personal cell phone started to ring in the middle of the night and my email in-box filled up. Messages from Europe, South America and all over the U.S. came in with requests for interviews, wanting me to elaborate in more detail on my very “provocative” point of view. I said no to every one of them even though some were respectable agencies, like the BBC, because I’d said all I had to say on this particular subject. I did not want my long career to be reduced to my defense of pubic hair or my life motto to read “Leave it alone!” Indeed I can hold my head up and be proud to tell my grandchildren someday that I actually turned down the Playboy Channel.

The online comments on the articles rapidly reproduced themselves, numbering in the thousands, with many hostile to my perspective and saying so in the most mean and inflammatory ways possible, citing my age, my looks and obvious lack of sex appeal as showing I lacked credibility in this subject. I dared to question the point of a multi-billion dollar cosmetic industry spawned by the even bigger multi-billion dollar porn industry, and no one was going to let me get away with it unscathed.

Civility has become even more endangered on the internet in the intervening ten years so I believe I actually got off easy at the time. Human beings lack accountability for their words and actions while hiding behind anonymous comments on media websites and blogs. It is easy to attack, lie, threaten, and bully when it is only words on a screen directed at someone you don’t know and will never meet. Decency and civility are lost forever when the standards for moral and ethical behavior disappear in a fog of pixels and bytes.

It has taken some time and distance for me to consider whether I did the right thing writing about a medical issue no one else would touch at the time. The “bare” trend has definitely waned over the last decade yet plenty of people still engage in the practice, although the recent sexual spread of the monkey pox virus is making some think twice about it.

If I managed to convince someone to put away the razor, stop the waxing, and respect their body as nature intended it to be, maybe I did the right thing after all.

After all – I shared whispered words of wisdom:
Let it be…

Cartoon by Clay Bennett
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Earth’s Secrets

I

A shaded lamp and a waving blind,
And the beat of a clock from a distant floor:
On this scene enter—winged, horned, and spined—
A longlegs, a moth, and a dumbledore;
While 'mid my page there idly stands
A sleepy fly, that rubs its hands...

II

Thus meet we five, in this still place,
At this point of time, at this point in space.
—My guests besmear my new-penned line,
Or bang at the lamp and fall supine.
"God's humblest, they!" I muse. Yet why?
They know Earth-secrets that know not I.
~Thomas Hardy "An August Midnight"


There are so many more of them than us.  Yes, insects appear where we don’t expect them, they sting and bite and crawl and fly in our mouths and are generally annoying.  But without God’s humblest knowing the secrets of the inner workings of the soil, the pollinator and the blossom, we’d have no fruit, no seeds, no earth as we know it.

Even more humble are our microscopic live-in neighbors — the biome of our skin and gut affecting, managing and raising havoc with our internal chemistry and physiology in ways we are only beginning to understand.

God created us all, each and every one, from the turning and cycles of smallest of atoms and microbes to the expanding swirl of galaxies far beyond us.

Perhaps the humblest of all, found smack-dab in the middle of this astounding creation, would be us: the intended Imago Dei.

Two legs not six or eight, two eyes not many, no wings with which we might fly away, no antennae, no stinger.

Just us with our one fragile and loving heart.

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Not Remotely Mystical

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

~Mary Oliver from “When Death Comes”

Probably Mary Oliver doesn’t stress out
about her hair or quote Led Zeppelin or start
to go upstairs to write something mystical
about a wood duck, but get sidetracked
by The Millionaire Matchmaker, watching four episodes
until, panicked by self-loathing, she hits the remote.

She lives somewhere kind of remote.
Is there even a Walmart out
in Provincetown? Mary never, in an episode
of frugality, shops there instead of the food co-op and starts
lying about where the Moose Tracks
ice cream came from, feigning loyalty to the mystical


oils and bulk grains of the co-op where Mystical
Mac ‘N Cheese costs an absurd $3.95 a box. There’s a remote
chance Mary, while pondering lilies, would get sidetracked
by a voicemail from her agent. Even Mary Oliver spaces out
on occasion and forgets to turn off her phone. Her days start
before dawn; wouldn’t she sometimes have episodes

of thinking, “To hell with the swan, I’m going to watch episodes
of Lost in bed all day?” It must be exhausting to be mystical
all the time, having to think up poems that start
with a smelly turtle and end with the glory of the soul. The remote,
sleek as an otter, lolls on her nightstand, calling out 
for her to take just this one morning off, to follow the tracks


of Matt Lauer and Dr. Phil instead of mucky tracks
left in the marsh by tick-ridden deer. Euphoric episodes
bound like grasshoppers through St. Mary’s poems, but out
in nature there must be days when nothing is special, when mystical epiphanies can’t break through the clouds. Is Mary ever so remote from it all that touching a leaf leaves her blank?

Does she start to get frantic, to fear she’s lost the connection?
She starts picturing herself in a smock with a nametag,
cleaning finger tracks off the automatic doors while wearing Mona Lisa’s remote smile, a smile barely wide enough to keep her employed. Fighting episodes of despair, she can’t figure out how to turn a shopping cart into a mystical symbol for death—piece of cake for most poets, but not for our Mary, out


there with the flora and fauna, not remotely accustomed to the episodes comprising life for those of us not “married to amazement,” the unmystical singles’ club, sidetracked by diversions. We start toward the door, but we rarely make it out.
~Christine Heppermann, “Pure” from  Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty

wood duck photo from Audobon Society

Moose Tracks ice cream has nothing on Tillamook Mudslide ice cream. And I can quote Simon and Garfunkel but not Led Zeppelin. Cracker Barrel Mac n Cheese is better than any other. If I’m going to take a day to get lost in a binge of streaming episodes, it is most likely going to be Outlander. And I don’t fuss about my hair.

<sigh>

I am well aware I fall far short from the example set by Mary Oliver, Jane Kenyon, Annie Dillard and others for whom writing became a mystical passion of self-discovery in their observation of creation and search for understanding of the Creator.

As someone who as a child could spend hours fascinated by the tiniest bug or follow ant tracks through the woods or catch pollywogs in the creek or lie motionless in a hideaway of tall grass watching clouds roll by on a summer afternoon, I can easily be accused of way too much “blissing out” on sunrises and sunsets as I walk through my days on earth.

The reality is something completely different. I compose my writing and photos as I go about my day, whether it is scooping manure in the barn, taking quick breaks to see how the light is changing outside, or gardening, or hanging up the laundry on the clothesline. I pull over on my way to work for a quick picture if something catches my eye. A trip to the grocery store offers opportunities for a back-roads drive to see how the surrounding cornfields are growing and raspberries are ripening. When I’m fortunate, I’ll spot an eagle in a roadside tree or a new calf nursing.

So every day is a new exploration of what is in my own backyard, not remotely mystical but simply there to be seen and mused over. Rather than married to amazement, I’m attracted to the remarkably mundane. But it does mean I need to walk out the door to meet it head-on.

Even
After
All this time
The sun never says to the earth,

“You owe
Me.”

Look
What happens
With a love like that,
It lights the
Whole
Sky.
~Daniel Ladinsky, from “The Gift”

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The Hope for Meaningfulness

Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed?

Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts?

Why are we reading, if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage and the hope of meaningfulness, and press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power?

What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and which reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered?

Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love?

We still and always want waking.
~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

…today, the unseen was everything. The unknown, the only real fact of life.
~Kenneth Grahame from Wind in the Willow

To find your voice you must forget about finding it,
and trust that if you pay sufficient attention to life
you will be found to have something to say

which no one else can say.
~Denise Levertov

We search for the unseen, hoping to find meaning in the unknown.

I am bewildered by life much of the time. Anyone looking at these online postings can see the struggle as I wake each day to seek out what I’m called to do and how to make this sad and suffering world a little bit better place.

I have little to offer a reader other than my own wrestling match with the mysteries we all face.

When a light does shine out through darkness,  I am not surprised. I simply needed to pay attention. Illumination was there all the time, but I needed the eyes to see its beauty laid bare, peering through the cracks of darkness.

Light beyond shadow,
Joy beyond tears,
Love that is greater when darkest our fears;
deeper the Peace when the storm is around,
nearer the Hope to the lost who is found.
Light of the world, ever shining, shining!
Hope in our pain and our dying.
in our darkness, there is Light, in our crying,
there is Love, in the noise of life imparting
Peace that passes understanding.
Light beyond shadow,
Joy beyond tears,
Love that is greater when darkest our fears;
deeper the Peace when the storm is around,
nearer the Hope to the lost who is found.
-Paul Wigmore

Light after darkness, gain after loss,
Strength after weakness, crown after cross;
Sweet after bitter, hope after fears,
Home after wandering, praise after tears.
Alpha and Omega, beginning and the end,
He is making all things new.
Springs of living water shall wash away each tear,
He is making all things new. ​
Sight after mystery, sun after rain,
Joy after sorrow, peace after pain;
Near after distant, gleam after gloom,
Love after wandering, life after tomb.
~Frances Havergal

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What Is It I’m Trying to Say?

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world,
and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.

~Percy Bysshe Shelley from “A Defence of Poetry

Poetry may make us from time to time
a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings
which form the substratum of our being,
to which we rarely penetrate;
for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.
—T.S. Eliot from The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism

Would anyone care to join me
in flicking a few pebbles in the direction
of teachers who are fond of asking the question:
“What is the poet trying to say?”

as if Thomas Hardy and Emily Dickinson
had struggled but ultimately failed in their efforts—
inarticulate wretches that they were,
biting their pens and staring out the window for a clue.

Yes, it seems that Whitman, Amy Lowell
and the rest could only try and fail
but we in Mrs. Parker’s third-period English class
here at Springfield High will succeed

with the help of these study questions
in saying what the poor poet could not,
and we will get all this done before
that orgy of egg salad and tuna fish known as lunch.

Tonight, however, I am the one trying
to say what it is this absence means,
the two of us sleeping and waking under different roofs.
The image of this vase of cut flowers,

not from our garden, is no help.
And the same goes for the single plate,
the solitary lamp, and the weather that presses its face
against these new windows–the drizzle and the
morning frost.

So I will leave it up to Mrs. Parker,
who is tapping a piece of chalk against the blackboard,
and her students—a few with their hands up,
others slouching with their caps on backwards—

to figure out what it is I am trying to say
about this place where I find myself
and to do it before the noon bell rings
and that whirlwind of meatloaf is unleashed.

~Billy Collins, “The Effort” from Ballistics.

Jan Davidsz de Heem. Vase of Flowers, 1660 National Gallery of ARt
photo by Josh Scholten

Poetry is the opening and closing of a door,
leaving those who look through to guess
about what is seen during the moment.
~Carl Sandburg

I am bewildered by life most of the time. Anyone looking at these online pages can see the struggle as I wake each day to seek out what I’m called to and how to make this sad and suffering world a bit better place.

I have so little wisdom to offer anyone with my own words, whether poetic or not. Instead, I describe my own wrestling match with the mysteries we all face.

When a light does somehow shine out through the murkiness,  I am not surprised.  It was there all the time, but by the grace of God I simply needed the eyes to see such beauty laid bare.

Only then I describe it as best I can.

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Dialogue With the Invisible

All day I try to say nothing but thank you,
breathe the syllables in and out with every step I
take through the rooms of my house and outside into
a profusion of shaggy-headed dandelions in the garden
where the tulips’ black stamens shake in their crimson cups.

I am saying thank you, yes, to this burgeoning spring
and to the cold wind of its changes.
Gratitude comes easy after a hot shower,
when loosened muscles work,
when eyes and mind begin to clear
and even unruly hair combs into place.

Dialogue with the invisible can go on every minute,
and with surprising gaiety I am saying thank you as
I remember who I am, a woman learning to praise something
as small as dandelion petals floating
on the steaming surface of this bowl of vegetable soup,
my happy savoring tongue.
~Jeanne Lohmann “To Say Nothing But Thank You”

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
~Mary Oliver “Praying”

As this long winter has finally given way to spring, I am grateful to pay attention to the small things around me, to breathe my silent thanks for this privilege of being witness to the soil of this life, this farm, this faith. More days than not, I savor it as someone who is hungry and thirsty for beauty and meaning.

In my thankfulness, I must pay attention to who I am: I still yearn to grow, to bloom and fruit, harvesting what I can to share with others.

It often feels like a dialogue with the invisible.

With deep gratitude to all who come here daily to read these words and enjoy my pictures and who let me know how it makes a difference in your day.

You and I may never meet in this life yet your generous comments always make a difference to me!

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Summoning Up Life’s Riches

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
~Mary Oliver

If your everyday life seems poor to you, do not accuse it;
accuse yourself,
tell yourself you are not poet enough to summon up its riches;
since for the creator there is no poverty

and no poor or unimportant place.
― Rainer Maria Rilke
from Letters to a Young Poet

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
~Mary Oliver from “When Death Comes”

As a child, I would sometimes spend long rainy afternoons languishing on the couch, complaining to my mother how boring my life was. 

Her typical response was to remind me my boredom said more about me than about life; I became the accused, rather than the accuser,  failing to summon up life’s riches. 

Thus convicted, my sentence followed: she would promptly give me chores to do.   I learned not to voice my complaints about how boring life seemed, because it always meant being put to work. I decided to live a life of nearly too much work and activity, missing much I could have slowed down to notice.

Some things haven’t changed, even sixty-some years later.  Whenever I am tempted to feel frustrated or pitiful or bored, I need to remember what that says about me.  If I’m not poet enough to recognize the Creator’s brilliance in every slant of light or every molecule, then it is my poverty I’m accusing, not His.

So – back to the work of paying attention and being astonished.  There is the rest of my life to be lived and nearly always something to say about it.


Night has come:
for one whole day again I’ve loved you so much,
stirring hills.
It’s beautiful to see.
But: to feel in the lining of closed eyelids
the sweetness of having seen …
~Rainer Maria Rilke

Even
After
All this time
The sun never says to the earth,

“You owe
Me.”

Look
What happens
With a love like that,
It lights the
Whole
Sky.
~Daniel Ladinsky, from “The Gift”

A book of astonishment in words and photography, available to order here:

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A Book and a Shady Nook

O for a book and a shady nook,
Either indoors or out;
With the green leaves whispering overhead,
Or the street cries all about;
Where I may read all at my ease,
Both of the new and old;
For a jolly good book whereon to look
Is better to me than gold.

~John Wilson (early 19th century Scottish author)

Suzzallo Library, University of Washington, Seattle
Yale Divinity School Library
Village Books, Lynden, WA

…for people who love books and need
To touch them, open them, browse for a while,
And find some common good––that’s why we read.
Readers and writers are two sides of the same gold coin.
You write and I read and in that moment I find
A union more perfect than any club I could join:
The simple intimacy of being one mind.
     Here in a book-filled sun-lit room below the street,
     Strangers––some living, some dead––are hoping to meet.

~Garrison Keillor 

Trinity College Long Room, Dublin

You know who you are.

You are the person who stockpiles stacks of books
on the bedside table and next to your favorite chair.

The person who sacrifices sleep to read
just one more page.

The person who reads the cereal box when
nothing else is available near the breakfast table.

The girl who falls into an uncovered manhole
walking down a busy street while reading.

The objects of your affection may be
as precious as the Book of Kells
.

or as sappy as an Archie and Jughead
comic book.

It’s the words, the words,
that keep zipping by, telegraphing

an urgent message: What’s next?
What’s next?

~Lois Edstrom “Bookworm” from Almanac of Quiet Days

Beinecke Rare Book Library, Yale University

Most of my life has been a reading rather than a writing life. For too many decades, I spent most of my time reading scientific and medical journals, to keep up with the changing knowledge in my profession. Even as a retired physician, I still spend an hour a day reading medical articles but now have the opportunity to dabble in books of memoir, biography, poetry and the occasional novel.

As a reader, I am no longer a stranger to the author or poet whose words I read. In a few instances, I’ve had the honor and privilege to meet my favorite authors in real life and to interact with them on line. They are friends on the page as well as in my life.

I am no longer strangers with many of you who read my words here on Barnstorming every day – I have been able to meet a number of you over the years. There is no greater privilege than to share words with one another.

No matter where I find my books – in an independent bookstore, in a little free library standing along the roadside, or inside the world’s treasured libraries filled with books of antiquity – I’ll seek out the sanctuary of a shady nook, either inside or out, where I can open the pages to meet up once again with my friends.

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This is a perfect book of words and photos for your shady nook – available for order here: